In a recent video-lecture for his online school Seminário de Filosofia, the Brazilian right’s favorite philosopher, Ovalo de Carvalho, recounted the conspiracy theory that the German sociologist Theodor Adorno wrote all the music and lyrics for the Beatles. Over the years, Carvalho has gained notoriety as a purveyor of surreal conspiracy theories, including the allegation that Pepsi uses the cells of aborted fetuses as a sweetener.
His latest theory asserts the Beatles could not have written their own songs, because they “were semi-literate in music” and “barely knew how to play the guitar.” Instead it was Adorno, a composer trained by Alban Berg and skilled in twelve-tone technique, who masterminded the Lennon-McCartney songbook.
Carvalho’s remarks will baffle fans of Adorno and the Beatles alike. Adorno, a major figure in the left-leaning intellectual movement known as the “Frankfurt School,” was a fervent critic of the commercialization and commodification of culture. Notoriously, he dismissed jazz and other types of popular music as “mechanical” and “standardized.”
Yet Carvalho’s assertions are not new: similar claims have been circulating on the far right since the late 1970s. The idea that Adorno was the secret songwriter for the Beatles is a byproduct of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, known as “Cultural Marxism,” that the main members of the Frankfurt School emigrated to the United States in the 1930s in order to implant political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism into American culture.
In the US, right-wing activists, such as the late Paul Weyrich and Patrick Buchanan, deplored the growing influence of “Cultural Marxism.” In the early 2000s, Carvalho imported this conspiracy theory to Brazil, where it has become an ideological cornerstone of President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing administration. For example, Bolsonaro’s foreign minister Ernesto Araújo insists that climate change is a hoax orchestrated by “Cultural Marxists.”
The Beatles have long attracted critics on the right. In 1965, Reverend David A. Noebel wrote Communism, Hypnosis, and the Beatles to warn the American public that “the minds of our little ones are being tampered with by the most cunning diabolical conspiracy in the annals of human history.” In this pamphlet, Noebel announced that the communists planned to use pop music to induce “menticide” in teenagers, causing them to lose their minds.
Noebel argued that the experiments of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov were the template for “Beatlemania.” In Pavlov’s most famous experiment, he fed a dog and rang a bell at the same time to train the dog to associate food with the sound of ringing. Over time, the dog salivated when it heard the bell ring, even when there was no food.
According to Noebel, this was a version of what the Beatles were doing to American teenagers. The hypnotic tempos of the Beatles’ music were calculated to inspire outbursts of hysterical ecstasy and lust in their female fans. Noebel argued that the overarching purpose of this Beatlemania was the elimination of American democracy and Christian morality.
In the following years, various figures across the ideological spectrum resorted to conspiracy theories to rationalize the seismic impact of the counterculture in 1960s America. Like Noebel, many conspiracy theorists blamed the Beatles for the political and cultural transformations they disliked. Adorno first appeared in this anti-Beatles conspiracy literature in the late 1970s, thanks to the work of Trotskyist-turned-fascist political cult leader Lyndon LaRouche.
LaRouche commissioned a 100-member research team from his political party — the U.S. Labor Party — to document the involvement of the British Royal Family in the global drug trade. In 1978, he published the results of their inquiry, Dope, Inc.: Britain’s Opium War Against the U.S, which identified both Adorno and the Beatles as participants in a shadowy British plot to disorient the youth of America.
According to Dope, Inc., the British Royal Family weaponized the music of the Beatles to promote drug consumption in America. Yet the Fab Four would never have succeeded without the musicological theories of Adorno, a British secret agent. LaRouche and his acolytes distort a quote from Adorno’s 1962 study Introduction to the Sociology of Music to insinuate that he wanted Americans to become hopelessly addicted to pop music.
Although LaRouche never fulfilled his political ambitions — he ran for President in every American election from 1976 until 2004 — his claims about Adorno and the Beatles took root in conspiracist circles. In 1992, the conspiracy theorist and supposed former intelligence officer John Coleman took the strange theories of Dope, Inc. and made them even stranger. Coleman’s book The Conspirator’s Hierarchy: The Committee of 300 alleged that European aristocrats and industrialists founded a secret society — the Committee of 300 — in 1901 that aimed to dominate and control the world. According to Coleman, the Committee of 300 enlisted Adorno to compose pop music that would encourage teenagers to defy their parents and overturn the status quo.
Coleman claimed that Hitler exiled Adorno from Germany for his subversive musical experiments. During his exile, Adorno allegedly worked for the British Royal Family at Gordonstoun School, where he invented the genre of “Beatlemusic Rock.” According to Coleman, the Committee of 300 decided in the 1960s to unleash Adorno’s Beatlemusic Rock on the world. Coleman asserted that Adorno’s songs for the Beatles were such a success that the Committee also asked him to write lyrics and music for other rock groups. He speculated that the Rolling Stones also recorded and performed Adorno’s music. Ultimately, the Committee of 300 recruited the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other unspecified rock groups to perform Adorno’s “fiendish Satanic music” and promote marijuana use.
LaRouche and Coleman’s wild claims about Adorno and the Beatles have since found a home in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Carvalho’s video lectures are popular with Brazilians who fear that they are in danger of losing their country to an ungodly rabble of leftist radicals, queer folks, and globalist elites. The costly online courses on Seminário de Filosofia promise to supply viewers with the knowledge to resist and reverse the supposed degeneracy of modern Brazil. Like other illiberal ideologues around the globe, Carvalho claims to expose the lies of the left-wing “university establishment,” and denounces any displeasing historical event or figure as part of an insidious conspiracy. Moreover, students of his online counter-academy interpret any attempt to debunk Carvalho’s pronouncements as further proof of the so-called university establishment’s biased nature.
In this way, the “Adorno-As-Fifth-Beatle” theory sucks its devotees into a vortex of alternative history, in which secretive and omnipotent conspirators brainwash the masses with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
As for the brainwashed masses: on Twitter, some Brazilians now speculate that Adorno must have written the long-lost Beatles masterpiece “Kant Buy Me Love.”
Andrew Woods is a PhD candidate at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University, and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.